Movies: Baseball Triple-Header

baseball in winterHere in January we’re almost equally distant from the previous professional baseball season (which ended in September) and from the coming one (which begins in April). Pitchers and Catchers report for Spring Training in mid-February, position players report later in the month. Spring Training games begin in March.

At various points in 2014, I picked up DVD copies of two (actually four) favorite baseball movies, plus one I’d never heard of, but found in a $4.99 bin somewhere. They’ve all been siting patiently waiting for me to watch them.

I thought: New Year’s Day sounds like the perfect time to do that!

There was no way I could watch five baseball movies (much as I might love the idea), but given a long, lazy New Year’s Day, a triple-header didn’t sound out of the question.

TV Twilight ZoneThe only real competition was the Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy channel, and as attractive as that was, the commercials annoy me so much I decided to be my own baseball movie channel.

I thoroughly enjoyed all three movies! Of course I knew I’d love the two old friends. It was the unknown one that had the potential to disappoint.

Generally speaking, baseball movies always appeal to me because I love baseball so much. Some of them aren’t really my cup of tea (the Bad News Bears movies, for example), but I still regard them fondly.

The Benchwarmers

The only ‘thumbs down’ baseball movie I’ve seen to date.

There’s only one baseball movie I’ve actually disliked (so far). And that’s The Benchwarmers. Part of the problem on that one is the three main actors: Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Jon Heder.

Schneider and Spade are okay, although it really depends on the movie. Heder leaves me cold. Napoleon Dynamite was… interesting, but I’ve never understood why it was such a huge attraction (maybe you have to be a teenager).

In any event, I sat through the whole movie (which means it at least wasn’t offensive to my sensibilities), but I never got into it or even warmed to it. Come the end credits and I see it’s from Happy Madison Productions.

Ah. Light bulb. That’s Adam Sandler’s company. And I hate that guy!

Paz Vega

Paz Vega!

I didn’t hate him in Spanglish (but that was more due to being head over heels for Paz Vega, plus it’s a James L. Brooks film), but outside that one I just can’t stand the man. For me, he’s just a big Avoid! sign. No wonder I didn’t like the baseball movie (apparently I don’t even like movies he produces).

Fortunately, the unknown baseball movie turned out to be a gem. The rather low production value of the DVD, and the full screen format, threw me at first, but it turned out to be a keeper.

As always, this isn’t a movie review so much as a movie celebration and commemoration of movies I’ve really liked. So let’s get to it.

First Base: Bleacher Bums, 2002, Saul Rubinek.

Bleacher BumsYes, that Saul Rubinek, the one you’re thinking of (he appears briefly as the “Bruins” manager). This is the unknown one. In fact, it’s so unknown it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page! But I saw it in the $4.99 bin, and it was a baseball movie, so the worst outcome is wasting a couple of hours of my time.

Turns out it’s a TV movie (hence the full-screen format) based on an original 1977 play out of Chicago. The play, Bleacher Bums, does have its own Wiki page, albeit a very brief one.

The entire story takes place during a single baseball game and involves a group of people sitting in the right field bleachers (the cheap seats). They’re all long-time fans who know — but don’t always seem to like — each other. These fans bet constantly with each other; that betting is central to the plot

Bleacher Bums scene

Newman!

The baseball team in question is clearly the Chicago Cubs, and the bleachers are clearly at Wrigley Field (unless there’s another MLB baseball park with ivy on the outfield wall). But due to licensing issues, the team and stadium are renamed.

The Cubs have become the “Bruins” (think bear cubs), and the game is against the visiting St. Louis “Eagles” (think birds).

I really liked the idea of the entire movie taking place during a single game. I also like the ending, which involves both losing and winning. That is, those who seem to have lost actually win, and vice versa.

Second Base: Major League, 1989, David S. Ward.

Major LeagueWhile not the greatest baseball movie ever made, it may well be the most entertaining, most engaging and most watchable. It’s one of those that, if you’re channel surfing and come across it, you’ll stop and watch it. It’s one of those movies you can watch over and over.

It concerns the (real) Cleveland Indians, who (to this day) haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They did take the American League Pennant in 1954 (after a record-breaking season: 111-43), but lost to the New York Giants in the World Series. They wouldn’t win another title until 1995.

The movie is set in 1989 (when it was made). Ballgame attendance is almost non-existent, and the team’s owner (the showgirl widow of the former owner who cared) wants the team to fail so badly that low attendance will allow her to move the team to Miami.

Harry Doyle

Just a bit outside!

So she puts together a team of misfits and losers designed to fail and makes their life impossible (broken equipment, sub-standard transportation and accommodations). Of course, as with all sports movies, it’s about the team’s success against ridiculous odds.

It’s just sheer, unadulterated fun! Bob “Mr. Baseball” Uecker‘s performance of Harry Doyle is worth the price of admission all on its own. Every true baseball fan knows the immortal phrase:

“Juuuuust a bit outside. He tried the corner and missed.”

For what it is (a fun baseball comedy romp), it’s an almost perfect movie. Every beat seems right on the money, and it is an enduring favorite among baseball fans (many of whom can quote the whole movie having seen it so often).

Margaret Whitton

Margaret Whitton

There are baseball players (especially in Cleveland, especially pitchers) who watch it regularly as part of their routine. Real-life relief pitcher Mitch Williams earned the name “Wild Thing” after Charlie Sheen’s character!

Trivia: The original script had the team owner actually intending the team she loved (and researched and understood) to succeed.

But test audiences so loved hating Margaret Whitton‘s excellent performance, they removed a key scene and re-shot the ending. Good choice I think.

Also: this was Rene Russo‘s first movie!

Third Base: Bull Durham, 1988, Ron Shelton.

Bull DurhamThis is one of the greatest baseball movies ever made. It’s also one of four baseball movies starring Kevin Costner. (One of those others, Field Of Dreams, is also one of the greatest — if not, perhaps, the greatest — baseball movie ever made.)

This stars three extraordinary actors: Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins (who was a relative new-comer then).

And for being one of the greatest baseball movies ever, it’s not really a baseball movie. It’s a romantic comedy set against the background of Minor League baseball.

Susan Sarandon

Susan Sarandon

And yet it is so a baseball movie. Any baseball player will tell you how much the movie resonates. Writer-director Ron Shelton was a Minor League player from 1967 to 1971, so he knows  his material.

It’s also a wonderfully subversive feminist movie (feminism ala Camille Paglia — a celebration of the power of women). Shelton had the Ancient Greek play, Lysistrata, in mind when he wrote Bull Durham, and Sarandon’s performance absolutely nails it.

Home (Run)!

All three movies are clear labors of love (which makes such a difference in the feel of a film). The latter two are auteur works: written and directed by one person. I think that, too, makes a difference.

Major League scene

“Wild Thing” and catcher.

All three are distinct in their own way. Bleacher Bums takes place during a single game, the outcome of which is significant. Major League takes place during a regular season, and is a traditional sports movie in coming down to the “big game” with crucial significance.

But Bull Durham, doesn’t concern itself with that. In fact, both ball players (Costner and Robbins) leave the team before the end of the season. Robbins is “sent up” to “the show” (the big league) while Costner is “released” from the team (he’d only been brought there to mentor Robbins).

Yet, as with Bleacher Bums, the winning in Bull Durham isn’t about the game at all. There is no final game, but it is an amazing story about love and eras of a life.

Next Batter!

Field of DreamsStill sitting on my shelf for next time, two favorites: The Natural (another of the greatest baseball movies ever made) and Moneyball, both based on books, and both in my Top Five.

Combined with Field Of Dreams, that would make an awesome triple-header for next time!

I’ll leave you with the opening monologue from Bull Durham. It’s a voice over by central character Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Along with the James Earl Jones speech in Field of Dreams, it’s one of two wonderful summations of the game of baseball:

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance.  But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology.

You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never borin’ – which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Makin’ love is like hitting a baseball, you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250, unless he had a lot of RBIs or was a great glove man up the middle.

[…]

Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

24 responses to “Movies: Baseball Triple-Header

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s that speech from James Earl Jones (as Terence Mann) in Field Of Dreams:

    Ray. People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.

    “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around”, you’ll say. “It’s only $20 per person”. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack.

    And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.

    And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

    […]

    The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.

    But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

  • siriusbizinus

    Field of Dreams and Moneyball are, for me at least, where it’s at for baseball movies.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Totally! One nice thing about Moneyball is that it’s a modern baseball movie and maybe the only excellent one this millennium. I did really like 42 (which is even more recent), but in some ways The Jackie Robinson Story (1950!) is better — it actually stars Jackie Robinson!

      The book, Moneyball, is even better than the movie, of course. Well worth a read if you’re into baseball. (Are you into baseball?)

      • siriusbizinus

        My baseball fandom is on the downturn, sadly. I used to attend minor league games locally with my family, but that team moved away. The closest major league team is in Atlanta, and the closest minor league team is in Birmingham, AL. That, and I’ve gotten jaded about baseball after the players’ strikes.

        Still, I’d be happy if where I live gets a minor league team again. There’s something about going to a game that’s infinitely better than watching it on TV. So I suppose I’m still a fan, but I just haven’t been able to get out to the games.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, you live in Braves country! 🙂

        There is indeed something very special about going to a ballgame. The smell of popcorn and hotdogs, the holiday atmosphere, the beauty of the game itself. (I do find that watching Major League games on TV has its own advantages in terms of the different camera angles, replays and (these days) some awesome extreme slo-mo shot of pitchers and batters. But it’s a different experience.)

        I’ve found too that, for me as a fan of data analysis (my work included a lot of it), the sabermetrics aspect of modern baseball is a whole new dimension of the game.

        It’s looking like it will be another bad year for my Minnesota Twins… I may have to start going to St. Paul Saints games if I want to see a home team winning! :\

      • siriusbizinus

        Actually, I am a Twins fan (my dad is the baseball fan in my family, and he grew up in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota).

        Sadly, when I was in law school, I didn’t get the chance to see them in Tampa when they made the playoffs.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, a Twins fan! Cool! It’s been a tough four years for them, as you may know. They let Gardenhire go (along with pitching coach Rick Anderson — a chance I’ve wanted for years) and hired Paul Molitor.

        The team is actually looking better than it has in a while, but unfortunately the rest of the division is looking even better. Even the Indians might kick some ass this year, and the Royals… well, they’re no longer the sister team we can count on beating.

        It’s hard being a Twins fan these days!

  • Hariod Brawn

    Glad you enjoyed the films Wyrd; yet baseball not being part of my English experience, it’s hard for me to hook into the narrative.

    Happy New Year!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Happy New Year, Hariod!

      I can totally understand. No doubt cricket (which I’ve unsuccessfully tried to understand several times) or soccer would be similarly foreign to me. Baseball, after all, is one of those things that are “as American as”, along with hot dogs, mom, apple pie, and the Fourth of July.

      (And in this case, “American” in the fullest sense, since it’s really big in Central America and parts of South America.)

      • Hariod Brawn

        Sadly, cricket has begun to go the way of baseball, or ’rounders’ as it’s known and played over here. Whilst this widens the appeal, it unquestionably diminishes the psychological aspects of the long-form game i.e. Test Cricket. Some of the greatest ever Test Matches have endured the full five days yet produced no end result. Marvellous!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha, yes! I’ve heard there were forms of Cricket that went on for days. (Every time I try to read up on the rules of Cricket, I end up scratching my head in puzzlement. Sometimes I think it’s deliberately confusing! 😛 )

        I know you’re not a fan of fiction, let along science fiction, but have you ever read fellow Brit Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy? It’s considered one of the classics in SF — a kind of supernova of a zany work, in fact. Cricket features prominently in the books, albeit with an Adams’ twist.

        As an example of Adams’ zaniness: An alien (who looks human, but you can see the unfathomable distance of his origin in his eyes) who lives among us (stranded, actually) did research to determine a good Earth name. He wanted something common, but unremarkable. He settled on the name “Ford Prefect” — a joke most Americans never get.

        And don’t get me started on the computer “Deep Thought” or the number 42…

      • Hariod Brawn

        I had some business connections with Adams (he was into music-making, electro-pop), though I’m afraid I react terribly to HGTTG, just as I do to all of that genre, mythical tales, etc. The BBC flogs HGTTG relentlessly over here, and I suspect that they have some privileged rights deal set in stone. 42 is a very good number though; and I sense Adams might have been onto something there. What does it all mean Wyrd?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, 42 is the answer the giant computer “deep thought” gave to the “ultimate question.” The problem was that no one had really defined the question. At one point it was thought the question might be, “What is six times nine?” (As it turns out, the answer to 6 x 9 really is 42… in base 13. That suggests god might have 13 fingers — leaving theologians to argue over how many on each hand, and which hand has more.) Later that question is recognized as incorrect (long story). There may even be an exclusion effect — only the question OR the answer can exist. That the answer does precludes the question from ever being known.

        (Note: the whole base 13 thing isn’t due to Adams at all, but various fans, such as yours truly. I don’t take any credit for an idea many came to independently. I did toss it out into the net decades ago, but I don’t really believe — as much fun as it would be to — that I originated it. It’s too obvious.)

        HHGTTG is a brilliant, zany romp filled with cute references and insights. Adams is one of those artists who had a only single enduring masterpiece in him (not unlike Frank Herbert and Dune). It’s the only work I know of that’s been published in eleven separate ways. Among them: radio broadcasts, novels, comics, video games, TV shows, movies, record albums, and towels. Yes, towels. (It makes total sense to fans of the books. 🙂 )

      • Hariod Brawn

        I’m sure it’s quite brilliant Wyrd; but then so is Wagner, and I just can’t warm to either. As they say, à chacun son gout!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! I feel the same way about Bach! (I wasn’t trying to persuade you — I know about your gout. 😛 )

      • Hariod Brawn

        Funnily enough, many years ago I had an aversion to Bach and Baroque music generally; and then about 25 years ago I suddenly became enchanted by both. The greatest live musical experience I ever had was of a complete performance the St. Matthew Passion. If I hear the opening bars now, I instantly well up – every single time.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Our tastes do change and evolve over time, don’t they! If you’d told me, prior to 2010-ish, that I’d become a major, serious fan of any professional sport (let alone baseball), I would have laughed at you.

        If you would have suggested I would make a concerted effort to watch all 162 games during the season (year after year), I would have thought you were insane! (It’s always possible I’m insane…)

        Somethings just come in their own time, I guess!

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I can’t say I’m a baseball fan. I went to a game once and found it intensely boring, except when the ball started coming my way and I tried to run the other way while everyone else ran my way. So my option was get hit by a baseball (because I sure as hell wouldn’t be quick enough to catch it) or get trampled. So maybe the movies would be better, but I don’t know. If you build it, I’ll probably stay home to wash my hair.

    I thought I pretty much hated watching all sports, but I found roller derby kind of fun. It was mostly the silly names and costumes, though.

    I will agree with you wholeheartedly on Adam Sandler.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I have a similar thing to your roller derby thing wrt NASCAR. I have no idea why I can sit watching cars go around and around for so long, but I can. I think part of it is not understanding all the rules and strategies involved, so there’s an element of mystery and a puzzle to be solved. And a wise man once said about men: “If it goes very fast, flies, makes a loud noise, catches fire, or explodes,… it’s cool!” NASCAR does cover several of those bases. 🙂

      Something like baseball is very much a matter of taste, and you’re right that baseball games are sedate. They may be one of the few major sports where one can have a conversation while watching a game. The thing is, once you really understand the game, it’s anything but boring. Some games are so tense I can feel my heart pounding.

      Every pitch is part of a psychological battle between the pitcher and the batter (I’ll be writing a post about this soon). The nuances and depths of strategy may make it one of the most complicated of professional sports — almost more akin to a chess game. What a batter tries to do depends on who’s pitching, who’s in the field, and who’s on what bases. (Who is on first, What is on second, and I Don’t Know is on third! 😀 ) It can even depend on how late in the season it is and what the temperature is like. It’s a surprisingly intellectual game (part of the reason I love it)!

      Baseball games are so complicated that it’s hard to watch everything that’s going on during a game, and I’m still amazed at what long-time fans — especially those that have played the game — can see. (I’ve been a hard-core fan for almost five years, and I still have so much to learn!)

      I’d never been a sports fan until I found myself watching baseball, but now it’s one of my favorite things! 🙂

      Here, FWIW, are a couple of posts that try to explain why:
      Baseball vs Other Sports
      Baseball is the Best!

      Also, if you’re familiar with the George Carlin routine comparing baseball and football, it’s not only funny, but dead on the money:

      • rung2diotimasladder

        You know, I’ve always been bad about learning the rules to a game. Even in board games, I usually have to relearn the rules while I’m playing.

        While I don’t like watching football, I used to play football with the guys on the street back in junior high. Even then I never learned the rules. My team would tell me what to do and I’d do that…sometimes, until I would hear, “Tina, other way. No! Turn around!” Even with these directional challenges, somehow I always ended up with the ball because I was good at dodging the gangly, awkward junior high boys who hadn’t yet learned how to move their recently elongated bodies. When HS came around, though, they’d just pick me up with the ball and run the other way. I think I stopped playing around then (I HATE losing!)

        George Carlin’s skit is pretty good. But you have to admit, he does make baseball sound boring. “We’re going home!”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        ROFL! Yeah, I suppose so if one craves the excitement and energy of football. My ex- was way more into football than baseball (although she readily admits it has a lot to do with tight ends in tight pants).

        If you ever take the chance to watch a baseball game with someone who truly knows the sport you may (or may not) find your view expanding. As I said before, it’s very much a matter of taste. My love of it really took me by surprise. That I’ve become more and more of a fan each year is astonishing to me! Unprecedented!

        (I’m not big on board games or card games, either.)

  • reocochran

    I have seen all of the baseball movies mentioned. I liked Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Moneyball and The Natural. I am a big Robert Redford and Kevin Costner fan, but enjoyed the Brad Pitt movie, too. Jonah Hill was very good in this, he should try this more often.

    I could not resist saying, I liked Adam Sandler in the movies, “Reign Over Me” and “50 First Dates.” They are both different in their sentimentality but did make a better impression on me. I feel Adam Sandler is over the top most of the time. It is like how I feel about the movie, The Majestic, with the crazy guy, Jim Carrey. I love him in this movie. There are comics who are well rounded and can act, then there are some who just cannot help themselves by being stupid. Adam S. is but my kids who are over 28 all like him!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Did you even see Bleacher Bums? If so, that’s impressive; you must be a real baseball fan (good for you)! I completely agree about Moneyball. I’ve seen it several times now, and it’s become one of my favorite baseball movies (the book is really good, too). There’s a key line in the movie — it’s said twice: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Exactly! 🙂

      You’re right about Jonah Hill — he’s another guy I’m a bit iffy on, but I really liked him in that. Exactly as you say about Sandler or Carey… it’s the movies when they don’t act like their usual over-the-top selves that I can enjoy their work. Carey, in particular, has done some good work (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was especially good, I thought). Sandler, on the other hand, is hard for me to ever like. Maybe because I dislike him so much in most of his work.

      Comedy is actually harder than drama (it requires timing and a good comic sense), so it’s not unusual for comedians to make good actors (Robin Williams is one great example; so is Steve Martin). But the ones that use slapstick or extremely “low-brow” comedy need to get past their “schtick” — Chevy Chase is a good example there in addition to Sandler or Carey.

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